The Future of Mobility: Traveling to the Peak of Safely in the Swiss Alps

Switzerland’s mountain railways are famous. They climb thousands of meters through magnificent landscapes. What these traditional railways don’t reveal at first glance is that they are equipped with state-of-the-art Siemens technology, which ensures reliable operation even under extremely adverse weather conditions. The technical solutions used in the railways are as varied as the trains themselves.

 

by Tim Schröder

If you want to discover Switzerland, you have to take a train to the top of a mountain. That’s because this country has more than 20 mountain railways that climb up to some of the most spectacular peaks – and, even more importantly, because each of the railways has its own long history. Many of them are over 100 years old. But despite their age, they are technologically completely up to date because they are equipped with state-of-the-art solutions, including ones from Siemens.

High-tech Shunting System for Old Tracks

The approximately 130-year-old Pilatusbahn railway is especially impressive. Its maximum gradient of 48% makes it the steepest rack railway in the world. Several times a day, the train travels the approximately 4.5-kilometer-long route up more than 2,000 meters to the summit of Mount Pilatus near Lucerne. At nightfall, each of the eight railcars is moved separately into a shunting shed at the summit station. This is done to protect the railcars from frost, snow, and storms, because the railway is in operation all year round. Since there is little space at the summit station, the railcars are shunted by means of a sliding platform instead of via switches. The sliding platform enables the railcars to be easily moved into the eight parallel sidings inside the shed. This process used to be relatively laborious. Although the sliding platform was moved by an electric motor, the shunting process was purely mechanical because the platform had to snap into a small indentation when it reached the appropriate siding. This required rail workers to stand next to the track in order to see whether the rails were correctly placed. During the shunting process they had to be careful to avoid injury or coming into contact with current collectors.

Siemens has now automated the sliding platform. Among other things, it has installed a shunting system that automatically positions the tracks with an accuracy of 0.1 millimeters. The challenge here was that the old shunting mechanism (including the racks and pinions and the slot system) had to be preserved for historical reasons. “For us, this was uncharted territory,” says Markus Ingold, a product manager from Siemens Drive Engineering in Zürich. “We normally build a drive system from scratch so that we can achieve a high level of precision. In this case, however, we had to make an old facility very accurate.” The effort has paid off, as a SIMATIC S7-1500-CPU controller system now ensures the accuracy that is needed. The system is connected to a SIMATIC touch panel, which provides remote monitoring and operation of the sliding platform. As a result, rail workers no longer have to enter the danger zone.

 

The project was made easier by the fact that the drive system, the high-precision controls, and the touch panel were configured with the help of the Siemens Engineering framework TIA (Totally Integrated Automation) Portal. “In the past, you had to enter the variables for all of the technical components repeatedly, and that was a very laborious process,” says Michael Reddich, an HMI (human machine interface) product manager at Siemens Switzerland in Zürich. “Now you only have to enter the data once into the TIA Portal. This reduces the risk of errors — not only for the Pilatusbahn but also for our project at the Rhätische Bahn railway company.”

A Better Overview Thanks to State-of-the-Art Visualization

Rhätische Bahn has 400 kilometers of tracks in eastern Switzerland. Among train enthusiasts and travelers, this railway is primarily known for its imposing bridges. For over 30 years, the route’s power supply has been monitored by a system from Siemens. Recently, however, the operators announced that they wanted to make the railway’s 14 stations more user-friendly. The rail network had previously been depicted on control panels in the form of a “mimic diagram” of simple lines and LEDs.

For the Gornergrat Bahn railway company, Siemens has created the first rail traffic control system to be operated in a cloud.

“To monitor the network, we installed 19-inch SIMATIC HMI Comfort Panels, which provide a much better overview than the previous system,” says Reddich. If there is a malfunction anywhere, the new system doesn’t cause a small LED to light up, as the old one did. Instead, an alarm window providing detailed information opens up on the screen. Another advantage of the new system is that the touch panel enables operators to simply use an SD card, for example, to quickly and easily make various changes that are possible because of the expansion of the real-life railway network. The old mimic diagram couldn’t be adjusted this easily.

 

Another benefit is that malfunction messages from the rail network can now be archived on the Comfort Panel and in a digital database. In the past, every message had to be written down on paper. As a result, it is now possible to analyze archived data for the annual status report, for example. Moreover, thanks to this new digitized operating system, panel information can be transmitted to smartphones via Sm@rtServer and a secure VPN connection to enable remote monitoring of the system.

Control Center in the Cloud

A third mountain railway project also involves the remote transmission of data, although on a much larger scale. For the Gornergrat Bahn railway company, which carries passengers up to the summit of the Gornergrat near the Matterhorn, Siemens has created the first rail traffic control system to be operated in a cloud. A centralized rail automation control and information system from Siemens known as “Iltis” has been controlling and monitoring the rail operations of the Swiss federal rail company (SBB) for 20 years. The new cloud solution for Gornergrat Bahn takes this idea a step further, eliminating the need for an IT infrastructure and software that was previously installed at the control center in Zermatt. Instead, “Iltis” is now being operated for Gornergrat Bahn as a cloud-based Siemens service. A dispatcher in Zermatt is still responsible for operating the control system, which is used to monitor the route and to set the switches. However, all of the underlying technology and computing power is installed in Siemens’ data center in Wallisellen, near Zürich. There is a backup computer in Zermatt that can operate the interlockings in an emergency if the data transmission line between Siemens and the control center is interrupted.

Secure Data Connection against Total Failure

A secure communications infrastructure is also essential for the Matterhorn-Gotthard-Bahn railway company. Siemens recently completed a redundant control system for monitoring the power supply of the 144-kilometer-long rail network. The power grid is often under great stress, especially in winter. In the course of the railway’s long history, temperatures below -10 degrees Celsius and huge snowdrifts have occasionally destroyed associated power lines. Smart solutions are needed to prevent such occurrences from bringing the entire rail network to a standstill.

 

The Matterhorn-Gotthard-Bahn rail network has 44 interlockings that are monitored from a control center. These interlockings have now been connected together into seven virtual mini-local area networks (LANs). If one of these networks is disrupted, the other six can continue to operate. At its heart, the new network consists of two Ruggedcom switches that manage and forward data in the manner of especially secure routers. These routers are robust and unaffected by electromagnetic interference, shocks, vibrations, and temperature fluctuations. They are installed at two different locations and connected to each other by redundant fiberglass cables. If one of these switches fails, the other operates the entire rail network on its own. This means the mountain railway can continue to run even if snow is falling or an icy wind is blowing through the valleys — just as it has done for the past 100 years.

2018-05-16

Tim Schröder

Picture credits: From top: 1. Steffen Schnur/Moment Editorial/Getty Images; Picture gallery: picture 1: perretfoto.ch, picture 2: Christof Sonderegger/Huber Images, picture 3: Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn, picture 4: mauritius images / hanmon / Alamy; 2. Siemens AG, 3. Arno Balzarini/Keystone Schweiz/laif, 4. Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Stay up to date at all times: everything you need to know about electrification, automation, and digitalization.